Egypt: The Red Chapel of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III at the Karnak Temple of Luxor

The Red Chapel of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

The Completed Red Chapel of Hatshepsut

When archaeologists rebuilt the White Chapel of Senusret I in the Open Air Museum at Karnak on the East Bank of Luxor (ancient Thebes), it took many years to carefully arrange the layout of the structure like a big jigsaw puzzle on paper. In 2001, when the Supreme Council of Antiquities decided to rebuild the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut (18th Dynasty) in the Open Air Museum, the process, like all of our modern lives, happened much quicker (though still a number of years), as they fed the architectural elements of the building into a computer. The results are splendid.

What really sets the small monuments, such as the White and Red Chapels, in the Open Air Museum apart is their very well preserved state. When the Pharaoh, Amenhotep III decided to enlarge the temple at Karnak by adding a new facade in the form of two entrance pylons, he pulled down many monuments which he no longer thought relevant, putting their stone sections in the core of the structure. This was the Third Pylon at Karnak.

The Red Chapel of Hatshepsut under Construction

At the end of the 19th century, a large part of the massive Third Pylon of Amenhotep III at Karnak toppled over during an earthquake. Then, in 1924, the director general of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Pierre Lacau, ordered his director of works at Karnak, Henri Chevrier, to repair the structure. He had to completely dismantle it in order to do so, and in the process, he discovered some 951 blocks that belonged to a total of eleven different structures used as fill within the pylon. Though many of these blocks were damaged, their encasement in mortar in the pylon preserved their inscriptions and decorations. Chevrier was responsible for reconstructing the White Chapel of Senusret I many years ago, but the blocks from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut remained dismantled until the 21st century.

A particularly unique scene from the Red Chapel

The Red Chapel of Hatshepsut was a barque shrine, as we believe was the White Chapel of Senusret I, built with a base and doorways of black granite (or more properly, gray diorite) with walls of red quartzite, from the quarry known as Djebel Akhmar, or "red mountain". Of course, the latter stone explains why the shrine is known as the Red Chapel. Actually, the natural color of the red quartzite varies, so the ancient craftsman painted all the block a uniform red color. It was probably begun about four years before Hatshepsut's death in about 1483 BC, and her nephew and successor (as well as defacer), Tuthmosis III may have continued work on the chapel, but never finished it.

Hatshepsut making offerings to the gods

The chapel, which set at the heart of the Karnak complex originally, was probably built to replace the earlier alabaster structure of Amenhotep I. It may have originally rested between her two obelisks in the temple, though this is by no means certain.

For many years the blocks from Hatshepsut's chapel were displayed on low stone bases where visitors could wonder along the blocks and see the exquisite reliefs, carved on both sides, at close quarters. However, in 1997 a decision was made to reconstruct the shrine. This work, actually begun in March, 2000, is now complete (early in 2002).It was undertaken by the Franco Egyptian Center, directed by Francois Larche, with the support of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). The project was funded by the Accor Company, a consortium that holds about 30 percent of the hotel capacity in Luxor (as of 2002).

Filler blocks in the Red Chapel

The blocks, numbering about 315, were studied to work out their original order. This was not an easy process. Unusually, most of the blocks contained a complete scene, and therefore do not overlap on to adjacent blocks. In fact, they never overlap on the horizontal joints. Some researchers believe that, due to the way in which these decorations occur, that this was indeed the first "prefabricated" building in history, with its decorations complete (though possibly not painted) prior to the building's erection. This of course made it extremely difficult to identify the sequence of blocks within the structure. Also, about half the blocks were missing (some 40 to 45 percent), so modern blocks of stone cut from the same material as the original were required. In some instances, modern brick was also incorporated, which was then plastered over and carefully painted to match the original colors. In order to assemble the building, apparently a study of the notches and dovetails in the blocks was studied

This work resulted in a surprisingly large structure (over seventeen meters in length and over six meters wide) which now dominates the Open Air Museum. It is a striking building with its black granite and red stone walls. It has three doors at the same level and of the same dimensions.

A scene of offering in the Red Chapel

The structure is divided into two chambers, with a low plinth in the larger of the two rooms that was used as a base for the barque of the God Amun, who's image was carried in procession between the temples of Karnak and Luxor during the annual celebration that took place at the height of the Nile Flood. In the center of the chapel was apparently located a drain for the waters used in absolution during the celebration.

The decorations of the chapel are particularly rich, with gold paint filling the hollows of the engraving. However, the only unfortunate aspect of this construction is that now many of the inscribed blocks, with their major motif being Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III interacting with Amun-Min and various other gods, as well as scenes from the Opet festival, the dedication of the chapel, the establishment of the queen as ruler of Egypt and the recording of nome divisions, are more difficult for visitors to actually see since many of the carved scenes are high up in the walls and not always oriented for viewing. It has been suggested that a good pair of binoculars be taken along for a visit if any serious study is intended.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2